In Chapters 1 and 2, I dealt with the Hindu myths and the Jewish lore respectively that were readily accepted and endorsed by the affluent Paravars, who wish to remove the stigma placed on the occupation of their caste namely, fishing, diving for pearls and chanks, and producing salt which were considered “low and ritually polluting occupations.” From this chapter onwards I will be writing about what we know historically and from ancient Tamil literature about the origin of the Paravar community.
From the earliest recorded times, the Paravars were an independent, seafaring people, involved in sea-related activities such as fishing, specializing in the seasonal harvesting of pearl oysters and chanks, navigation, boat building, and production of sea salt. In ancient times, being seaborne traders, they were occasionally given to piracy and smuggling.
In the Madras Census Report, 1901, it is noted:
… there are in reality three castes which answer to the name Paravan, and which speak Tamil, Malayalam, and Canarese respectively. Probably all three are descended from the Tamil Paravans or Paratavans. The Tamil Paravans are ﬁshermen on the sea coast. Their headquarters is Tuticorin, and their headman is called Talavan … The Malayalam Paravans are shell collectors, lime burners and gymnasts, and their women act as midwives. Their titles are Kurup, Varnkurup, and Nurankurup (nuru, lime). The Canarese Paravans are umbrella-makers and devil- dancers.”
It has been further speculated that the splitting of the latter two groups from the first may have been as a consequence of a desire to flee from the ancient tribal areas in Tinnevelly to avoid the oppression by the Muhammadans.
In the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Volume 4 in Art. V, “Remarks on the Origin and History of the Parawas” Simon Casie Chitty wrote:
In the classiﬁcation of the Tamil castes, the Parawas rank ﬁrst among the tribes of ﬁshermen, and they are generally allowed to have been the earliest navigators in the Indian Ocean, like the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean. They are described in the Tamil dictionary, entitled Nigundu Sulamani, under the head of Neythanilémakkal, or inhabitants of the sea-coast. In Sanscrit, they are called Parasavas, or Nishadas, and in Tamil, Parathar, Parathavar, and Paravar.
Little is known about the Paravars from the 5th to the 15th century.
Robin Arthur Donkin (1928–2006), an English historian and geographer who in 1990 served as a reader in Historical Geography in Cambridge University’s Department of Geography has argued that with one exception, “there are no native literary works with a developed sense of chronology, or indeed much sense of place, before the thirteenth century”, and that any historical observations have to be made using Arab, European and Chinese accounts.
Pandyan king Arikesari Maravarman (r. c. 670–710 AD), also known as Arikesari Parankusa, ruled parts of present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu. According to the Velvikkudi grant (stone inscription), he won battles at Pali, Nelveli, Uraiyur and Sennilam. Except for Uraiyur, the identity of these places is not certain. E. Hultzsch identified Nelveli with modern Tirunelveli. The larger Chinnamanur grant states (stone inscription) that Arikesari Maravarman won battles at Nelveli and Sankaramangai, and also defeated the Pallavas. The inscription further states that he ruined the Paravar (a southern fishing community).
Though works in the Tamil Sangam literature such as Ettuthokai, Paththupaattu, Ahanaanooru, Madurai Kaanchi and Pattinappaalai refer to the lives of the Paravars, there are different views regarding events up to the early 16th century among the investigators of the Paravar history.
Madurai Kaanchi (Tamil: மதுரைக் காஞ்சி), a Tamil poetic work in the Pathinenmaelkanakku anthology of Tamil literature, belonging to the Sangam period (spanning from c. 3rd century BC to c. 3rd century AD) contains 583 lines of poetry written by the poet Mankuti Maruthanaar in praise of the Pandya King Nedunjeliyan II on the occasion of his victory at the battle of Talayanankanam. In this work, the Paravas are described as being most powerful in the country around Korkai:
“Well fed on ﬁsh and armed with bows, their hordes terriﬁed their enemies by their dashing valour.”
Madurai Kaanchi describes Korkai as the chief town in the country of Parathavar and the seat of the pearl ﬁshery, with a population consisting chieﬂy of pearl divers and chank cutters. When the Pandyan kingdom was powerful. the Paravas had grants of certain rights from the monarchy, paying tribute from the produce of the ﬁsheries, and receiving protection and immunity from taxation in return.
Stephen Neill in his work, “A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707” says:
The Paravas lived in a number of villages, perhaps about twenty in all, strung out over a narrow strip of land about a hundred miles in length, from Cape Comorin to Vembar. A hardy race, they live by the sea in two senses of that expression. For most of the year their livelihood is ﬁshing; because of the association of this trade with the taking of life, they are not reckoned by the Hindus as belonging to one of the higher castes. They have developed astonishing skill in the management of their catamarans, each with its single lateen sail. This stern and exacting labour gives them immense physical hardihood and a strength of character which at its best is courage but may take the form of a rather rough aggressiveness. For the most part, the boats remain not far from the shore and return with the off-sea breeze in the evening. But violent tempests can arise and sweep the boats far out of sight of land; every year a number of lives are lost.
What gave variety to Parava life, and importance beyond the local scene was the annual pearl-ﬁshery. The collection of oysters begins in March and lasts for twenty to thirty days. The oyster beds lie at a distance of ﬁve to six miles from the coast. Fantastic tales are told of the length of time that a diver can remain underwater; observation shows that the time is usually not more than a minute, and in no case exceeds a minute and a half. The work is extremely exhausting; by midday, the diver has done his work for the day and is ready to return to shore for the sorting of the catch. In a good season, the proﬁts can be very high; but the man who does the hard work is far from being the only beneﬁciary.
Isaac Rajendran and Freda Chandrasekaran have said in their work “History of the Indian pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar”. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of India, that up to the 16th century the Paravars had held almost a monopoly of the rights to exploit the pearl fisheries, having negotiated with successive kings to achieve this.
The Pandyan kings allowed the Paravars to manage and operate the pearl fisheries because of their ancient skills in that activity, which required specialist seamanship abilities, knowledge of the location of the oyster beds and the art of tending them. The Pandyan kings exempted the Paravars from taxation and allowed them to govern themselves in return for being paid tribute from the harvested oysters.
Theodore Maynard in his work “The Odyssey of Francis Xavier” has claimed, the south Indian coastal areas around Kanyakumari were “the greatest pearl fishery in the world”, and that the Hindu people who fished for oysters there “… were known as the Paravas, a caste sufficiently low, although not of the very lowest.”
Although Robert Eric Frykenberg, in his book “Christianity in India: from beginnings to the present” has described them as a “… proud and venturesome seafaring folk engaged in fishing, pearl diving, trading, and piracy,” Adrian Hastings in his book “A World History of Christianity” has pointed out that the piracy (and some smuggling) was only an occasional activity and that their more normal occupations demanded courage, strength and stamina, which made them “hardened adventurers”.
During the reign of the Pandya kings, the Paravars had their headquarters at Korkai harbour and were spread out into several fishing hamlets in the pearl fishery coast of Gulf of Mannar and adjacent Comerin coast:
Alanthalai, Chethupar, Idinthakarai, Kanyakumari, Kootapuli, Kovalam, Kumari muttam, Kuthenkuly, Manapad, Mookur, Muttom, Palayakayal, Periathalai, Periyakadu, Perumanal, Pozhikkarai, Pudukarai, Punnaikayal, Puthanthurai, Rajakamangalam Thurai, Thalambuli, Thanumalayan Pillai Thoppu, Thiruchendur, Thoothukudi, Uvari, Vaippar, Vembar, Virapandianpatnam.
In some villages, Karaiyars, a sub-sect of Paraiyars, and Mukkuvars also lived along with the Paravars. The Mukkuvars were found mostly in Kanyakumari and in the villages west of it. Members of these three castes – Paravars, Karaiyars and Mukkuvars – on the Fishery Coast were illiterate fisherman and divers who harvested pearl oysters and chanks.
The Paravar fishermen, with dark-brown complexion, wore only a kovanam (loincloth) and a white scarf around their head. Most of them were poor and addicted to intoxicating brews such as coconut toddy and arrack distilled from the juice of the palmyra palm.
Adultery was rampant among the Paravars.
The affluent males Paravars pierced their earlobes and wore heavy pearl-studded gold ear ornaments. Some writers say that a few prosperous Paravars had slaves.
The funeral custom of Sati where a widow immolates (burns) herself on her dead husband’s pyre existed among the Hindu Paravars since they believed that the women who committed Sati would live along with their husbands when reborn. Those women who refused to (immolate) themselves were forced to leave their home and become public women. And those who opposed the custom of Sati, male or female, were killed.
The Paravars were superstitious and the soothsayers and necromancers played a significant role in their lives. They sought the shark charmers to ward off shark attacks during fisheries.
Surprisingly, the Paravars did not slaughter cows for meat.
The Paravars believed the unsubstantiated myth that god Kartikeya, also known as Murugan and Subramanian married a Parava lass named Deivanai and so they had a special affinity to the Murugan Temple at Tiruchendur which is considered as one of the six holy abodes of the deity. During the religious festivals of the temple, the inhabitants of the seven Paravar villages – Manapadu, Alanthalai, Virapandiapattanam, Punnaikaval, Thoothukudi, Vembar and Vaipar – took an active part along with the people of Tiruchendur. The Parava headman of Virapandianpattanam was given the first honour of pulling the vadam (Tamil: வடம்; rope) attached to the ther (Tamil: தேர்; festival car) of the deity during festivals.
Some writers say that the palanquins of the prosperous Paravars of Virapandianpattanam were borne on the shoulders of Idayars (shepherds) who bore the idols of the deities during festivities at the Murugan Temple in Tiruchendur.
The Paravars had a succession of chiefs among them, distinguished by the title ‘Adiarasen‘, later, the leaders were known by titles such as: Thalaivan, Pattankattiyars, Araiyars and Adappannars.
- Pandyan Dynasty (en.wikipedia.org)
- Paravar (en.wikipedia.org)
- Arikesari Maravarman (en.wikipedia.org)
- Duarte Barbosa (en.wikipedia.org)
- Robin Donkin (en.wikipedia.org)
- CHAPTER ONE – A HISTORICAL SURVEY OF THE PEARL FISHERY COAST (shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in)
- Sati (practice) (en.wikipedia.org)
- The Paravars: A Preamble (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 1 – The Hindu Myths (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 2 – The Jewish Lore (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 3 – The Pearl Fishery Coasts in the Gulf of Mannar (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 5 – The Pre-Muhammadan Period (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 6 – The Muhammadan Invasion of the Pandya Kingdom (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 7 – The Hazardous Occupation of Harvesting Pearl Oysters (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 8 – Arrival of the Portuguese in India (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 9 – Seeking Help from the Portuguese (tvaraj.com)
- The Paravars: Chapter 10 – Conversion to Catholicism (tvaraj.com)
- Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, Volume 4 in Art. V, “Remarks on the Origin and History of the Parawas” Simon Casie Chitty, Maniyagar of Putlam, Ceylon, M. R.A. S. &c., &c., &c.
- Isaac Rajendran and Freda Chandrasekaran, “History of the Indian pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar”. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of India. 18 (3): 549–550,
- Donkin, Robin A. (1998). “Beyond price: pearls and pearl-fishing: origins to the age of discoveries”. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society. 224. ISBN 978-0-87169-224-5.
- Maynard, Theodore (1936). The Odyssey of Francis Xavier. Longsman, Green.
- Frykenberg, Robert Eric (2008). Christianity in India: from beginnings to the present (Reprinted ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-19-826377-7.
- Hastings, Adrian (2000). A World History of Christianity. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans. pp. 166–168. ISBN 978-0-8028-4875-8.
- Stephen Neill F.B.A., A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
Library of Congress catalogue card number: 82-23475 ISBN 0 521 24351 3 hardback, ISBN 0 521 54885 3 paperback.